By Neil Becker
There were no shortages of intriguing NHL storylines heading up to the much-anticipated unrestricted free agent signing season.
Earlier this summer, as the calendar inched closer towards noon ET on July 13th, you can bet that various hardcore hockey fans from coast-to-coast were passionately debating who their beloved team should sign.
Out west, Calgary Flames fans were sweating as they anxiously awaited July 13th, when teams were allowed to sign unrested free agents at noon ET. The big question being agonized by Flames fans was whether their homegrown star forward and last year's leading scorer, Johnny Gaudreau, would re-sign in Calgary.
Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the question was whether the Oilers would sign an available unrestricted free agent starting goalie.
Other storylines and debates heading towards that magical July 13th date were whether veteran star forward Claude Giroux would re-sign with the Florida Panthers and how accurate were the rumours about the Leafs looking to sign unrestricted free agent Marc-Andre Fleury?
The biggest bombshell came with Gaudreau when the unrestricted free agency signing period began. Known affectionately as "Johnny Hockey," this 2011 fourth-round Flames pick, who was coming off a solid 115-point season, signed a seven-year deal worth $68.25 million with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
During Gaudreau's time with Calgary, he played in 602 games, where he ended up scoring 210 goals along with 609 career points.
Prior to signing, rumours were that if not Calgary, he would sign with either the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Islanders or New York Rangers to be closer to his Salem, New Jersey home. Needless to say, the Blue Jackets definitely shocked the hockey world and broke the hearts of Flames fans by making a bold statement with this signing.
A second intriguing storyline heading into the UFA signing period was whether Pittsburgh Penguins legend and sure Hall of Famer Evgeni Malkin would resume the back half of his career in Pittsburgh or, as an unrestricted free agent, go elsewhere.
As of early July, Malkin, affectionately known as 'Gino,' was still unsigned by the Penguins.
Showing a flair for the dramatics, this 36-year-old, who was drafted by Pittsburgh second overall in the 2004 draft, gave Pens fans reason to feel excited about the upcoming season, as he signed on July 12th a four-year, $24.4 million contract to stay in the Steel City.
Malkin has played in 981 games, where he scored 444 goals and 1,146 points. He is part of the dynamic duel with captain Sidney Crosby who helped the Penguins capture the Stanley Cup in 2009, 2016 and 2017. He is, however, coming off an injury-plagued season which saw him score 20 goals and 42 points in only 41 games.
The Penguins desperately wanted to make sure he finished his career with them but did they pay too much for too many years? Let the debates begin.
There was also a good chance that fans in the Nation's Capital were debating whether the Ottawa Senators should acquire a quality defenceman. As it turned out, the Senators also ended up being a big winner when on July 13th, they signed forward Claude Giroux to a three-year deal worth $19.5 million.
Rumours were circulating that the Senators, Carolina Hurricanes and Edmonton Oilers were all greatly interested. Last season Giroux scored 18 goals and had 42 points in 57 games with the Philadelphia Flyers before being dealt to the Florida Panthers in March, where he totalled three goals and 23 points in 18 games.
Other teams making news included the Oilers, who on July 13th signed unrestricted free agent starting goalie Jack Campbell to a five-year, $25 million contract. The 30- year-old played 49 games last season for the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he posted a 31-9-6 record with five shutouts and a respectable 2.64 GAA.
The re-building Detroit Red Wings benefited greatly and improved by signing veteran forward Andrew Copp to a five-year, $28.125 million contract. Copp, who is 28 years old and born in Ann Arbour, Michigan, is coming off a strong season which saw him score 13 goals and produce 35 points in 56 games with the Winnipeg Jets before getting traded on March 21st, 2022, to the New York Rangers. Copp finished off the regular season with the Blueshirts, producing eight goals and 18 points in 16 games. He will definitely provide the Wings with some much-needed secondary scoring.
Meanwhile, the Wings also added some key pieces on the blueline, including signing 31-year-old Ben Chiarot, who agreed to a four-year, $19 million deal.
Another key under-the-radar signing was 27-year-old Olli Maatta, who agreed to a one-year, $2.25 million deal.
A third blueliner to sign was 30-year-old Mark Pysyk, who agreed to a one-year, $850,000 contract. Unfortunately, it was made official in late July that Pysyk would be out for 4-6 months while recuperating from Achilles tendon surgery.
Chiarot, who provides sandpaper to the blueline, played 54 games last season for the Montreal Canadiens, where he scored seven goals and 18 points before getting traded on March 16th, 2022, to the Florida Panthers. In Florida, he chipped in offensively with two goals and eight points in 20 games.
Maatta, who was on the 2016 and 2017 Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup winning teams, played last year for the Los Angeles Kings, where in 66 games, he scored one goal and amassed eight points.
Pysyk, who is 30 years old, played last year for the Buffalo Sabres, where in 68 games, he totalled three goals along with 12 points.
Other key signings for the Wings were depth forwards Dominik Kubalik, who agreed to a two-year $2.5 million contract and forward David Perron, who played 67 games last season for the St. Louis Blues where he scored 27 goals along with 57 points.
Kubalik, who is 26 years old, played 78 games last season for the Chicago Blackhawks, where he scored 15 goals and totalled 32 points.
Perron also provides toughness up front and brings a winning pedigree as he helped the Blues capture the 2019 Stanley Cup.
The Flames lost valuable talent in forwards Gaudreau, Byron Froese and Calle Jarnkrok, to name a few, and some defencemen. Among the most significant losses was Unrestricted Free Agent Erik Gudbranson, who signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Blue Jackets.
Also losing some key pieces this off-season was the defending President's Trophy champs Florida Panthers. The Panthers rolled the dice at last year's trading deadline when they traded forward Owen Tippett along with their 2024 first-round draft choice and 2023 third-round pick to the Philadelphia Flyers in a blockbuster deal which landed them Giroux. The veteran performed well in the postseason as he scored three goals, had eight points in 10 games, and certainly couldn't be faulted for the Panthers' early playoff exit. Instead of re-signing in South Florida, Giroux, as mentioned, signed in Ottawa.
Another move that hurts the Panthers is seeing 27-year-old UFA forward Mason Marchment sign a four-year, $18 million contract with the Dallas Stars. Marchment is coming off a career season that saw him play 54 games, scoring 18 goals and amassing 47 points.
Florida also lost some pieces on their blueline, including hard-hitting Chiarot, who, as mentioned, went to the Wings. They did, however, sign veteran 35-year-old and former Wings defenceman Marc Staal to a one-year, $750,000 contract.
As the calendar inches closer to mid-August, the debates among fans and hockey media alike are still happening as they dissect each unrestricted free agent signing.
Among the storylines being debated is the Leafs new goaltending duo. Two days before unrestricted Free Agency season began, the Leafs pulled off a trade with the Senators for often injured goalie Matt Murray. Shortly after, debates began about Murray's health and whether he was a solid signing, Toronto went out and signed unrestricted free agent goalie Ilya Samsonov to a one-year, $1.8 million contract.
There are still several valuable unrestricted free agents who haven't been signed. Look at elite players such as 33-year-old defenceman PK Subban, who is coming off a five-goal, 22-point season with the New Jersey Devils, and 31-year-old forward Nazem Kadri, who totalled a career-best 87 points with the Stanley Cup champions Colorado Avalanche.
Also still available are veterans like 34-year-old forward Phil Kessel, who is only 1 goal away from 400 and 44 points shy of 1,000, and 36-year-old forward Paul Stastny, to name a few. Other names floating around include 32-year-old Brayden Holtby and 35-year-old defenceman Keith Yandle.
Since the beginning of summer, a constant rumour had Kessel going to the Oilers. Stay tuned to see how this one unfolds.
The unrestricted free agent signing period is next to the draft, probably every hockey fan's favourite off-season time. It's when hockey fans at their favourite sports bar or perhaps at work by the water cooler can engage in entertaining and spirited hockey debates about the UFA signings and what they could mean for the upcoming season.